Metropolis Essay

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Metropolis broadly refers to the largest, most powerful, and culturally influential city of an epoch or region. A succession of great metropolitan cities charts the course of western urban history.

Two features of the metropolis are revealed in the etymology of its Greek origins (meter/mother + polis/city). As population forced some city states in antiquity to found colonies, they became the mother city” of those colonies. As polis, ancient metropolis was a relatively open political community attracting commercial and other forms of exchange, and offering opportunities for sophisticated living. In this way metropolis differed from other forms of the imperial city which were typically rigid, closed and hierarchical, affording residents few independent rights.

Ancient Athens is often considered the epitome of the Greek polis, its contributions to democracy, humanism and open inquiry central in shaping western values and culture. By the fifth century, however, Athens had grown to many times the size of the ideal polis. Despite the magnificence of its public buildings, most of the city’s residents lived in poverty.

Imperial Rome also developed the metropolitan urban form. Here politics was understood more as public authority than self-ruling democracy. Yet management of empire emphasized practical arts — military organization, civil engineering and city planning. Roman power established many cities which shared features such as a defined center, a clear boundary or perimeter and an overall spatial distribution of buildings, functions and people where the core was systematically valued over more distant parts.

The modern metropolis is the foremost expression of the centralizing and accumulating tendencies of first mercantile, then industrial, now global capitalism. Growth of the market economy initially amplified the importance of the urban core. Modern metropolis grew up around a single center or business district. Locations at a distance from the hub were at a disadvantage. Thus city growth produced the distinctive patterns of urban development described by Frederick Engels, Ernest Burgess, and others.

Relentless growth has transformed the metropolis from a densely populated, bounded entity with a single center into a vast urbanized region. Early evidence of this shift is found in Victorian London where the term metropolitan” first appears to describe services extending over the whole city.” As economic and technological forces consistently pushed development beyond the city, the metropolis became redefined as a geographic or statistical area composed of one or more established urban nuclei.

In the USA, in 1910 the Census Bureau devised metropolitan district — a central city with a population of at least 200,000 plus adjacent townships. In 1949, this measure was replaced by the standard metropolitan area — an area containing a city of at least 50,000 plus surrounding counties. Three principal types of metropolitan area are currently recognized. Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) are areas with populations of less than one million, regardless of the number of counties contained. If the metropolitan area exceeds one million, it is designated a Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area (CMSA). Primary Metropolitan Statistical Areas (PMSAs) are areas in their own right, but integrated with other adjacent PMSAs forming multi-centered CMSAs.

Such designations signal transformation of the metropolis into an urban region containing many centers of work, residence and shopping and sprawling across multiple administrative districts. New metropolitan regions are typically bifurcated into areas experiencing rapid growth or severe decline.


  1. Hall, P. (1998) Cities in Civilization. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.
  2. LeGates, R. T. & Stout, F. (eds.) (2007) The City Reader. Routledge, New York.
  3. Mumford, L. (1961) The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations and Its Prospects. Harcourt, Brace & World, New York.

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